The Champion Trees of Bushnell Park

Bushnell Park is an urban arboretum of rare and native trees, including unusual ones like the Japanese Pagoda, Chinese Toon (or Chinese Mahogany), Gingko, Eucommia and Baldcypress, as well as more common varieties of Maple, Oak and Ash.

When Jacob Weidenmann, Bushnell Park’s designer, planned the park, he selected 157 varieties of trees and shrubs for planting. The trees he selected came from North America, Europe and East Asia. In all, his original planting scheme showed a total of 1,100 individual specimens.

Over the years, however, hundreds of the Park’s original trees have been lost, through damage, disease and neglect. Once virtually covered by a canopy of green, the Park’s tree count had dropped to 339 in the late 1980s. A major re-planting effort by the Bushnell Park Foundation  in the 1990s helped bring the number up to about 460 trees today.  Beginning in 2021, the Bushnell Park Foundations looks to plant 100 new trees in the next 4-5 years.

There are three state champion trees in Bushnell Park, which means that they are the largest of their species so far located by the Connecticut Notable Tree Survey, a project of the Connecticut Botanical Society.

Chinese Toon (Cidrela sinensis)
This tree hangs over the wall of the west tower of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch. The leaves have 5-12 pairs of leaflets, looking somewhat like a sumac or tree-of-heaven leaf. The Toon, or Chinese Mahogany, is native to China. It is doing well, having recovered from a large trunk gash. Because it is the only specimen known in Connecticut, it automatically becomes the state champ, even though it is probably no more than 50 years old. It blooms very late in the spring, producing beautiful small white flowers in June, followed by clusters of fruit with winged seeds.

Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris)
With a trunk almost 17 feet in circumference, this is a magnificent state champion specimen. Native to Europe, it has wavy edged leaves and large acorns with bristly cups. Differing from many oaks, it produces a large crop of acorns every year, making it a favorite with the squirrels. Also, its leaves tend to hang on until after Christmas. Bushnell Park has four of these unusual trees. Some say it’s called a Turkey Oak because its leaves look like the fanned-out tail of a Tom turkey. Use your imagination!

Oriental Oak (Quercus variabilis)
Among the rarest trees in Connecticut, this tree is near the Spirit of  Victory statue. Native to the Far East, they have thick, almost corky bark, oval leaves with bristly margins, similar to the Turkey Oak and large acorns with very bristly cups.

Charter Oak (scion)
Although not rare, and not a state champion, this is probably the most notable tree in the park. It is a scion–or first-generation offspring–of Hartford’s famous Charter Oak, which blew down in 1856, and played a key role in how Connecticut got its nickname of the Constitution State. It is the state tree of Connecticut.

The original Charter Oak was already an impressive tree when the first European settlers arrived.  Legend has it that the Charter Oak survived because the Native Americans asked Samuel Wyllys, as he cleared the land for his farm, to save this large white oak. They told Wyllys that the majestic tree had served as a council tree, a place where tribal leaders met to talk, and a marker of the seasons. It is said that the tribes took note of when the leaves came out on this tree as a sign to begin planting their crops each spring.

The story of the Charter Oak
In October 1687, on the order of the English crown, Sir Edmund Andros, Governor of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, was sent to Hartford with some 60 heavily armed troops to seize Connecticut’s Charter, which authorized the colony to operate independently. During a long and increasingly tense meeting held at the Old State House, all of the candles were knocked over, plunging the room into darkness. Capt. Joseph Wadsworth of Hartford whisked the Charter out of the room, ran down Main Street, and hid it in an old hollow oak tree, where it remained hidden for almost two years. In 1689, the people of Connecticut voted to re-establish the government according to the old Charter. The significance of all this is that, among the original 13 colonies, only Connecticut maintained self rule up to the American Revolution. The Charter Oak grew at the corner of Charter Oak Ave. and Charter Oak Place. A marker designates the spot. The original Connecticut Charter may be seen at the Connecticut State Library (across from the Capitol).